Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is a diligent student. Through the fall semester, he meticulously reviews coursework and formulates detailed study guides.
He huddles his classmates for twilight study sessions before their weekly tests. He maximizes those condensed preparation periods and excels on every Saturday exam.
Yet, Venables performs best on finals, when he is allotted an extended study period.
Through the previous four seasons, Venables enjoyed at least 20 days of preparation for each bowl opponent. Clemson won each of those games, with dominant defensive performances.
Clemson faced Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl and in the Fiesta Bowl last season. Clemson routed Oklahoma in consecutive years in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl and the 2016 Orange Bowl.
Each of those teams averaged at least 480 yards of total offense, 39 points and 235 rushing yards per game before meeting Clemson. On average, Clemson held those opponents to 181.6 total yards, 28.9 points and 139.9 rushing yards below their previous marks. Those four foes averaged 2.1 fewer yards per play against Clemson.
Alabama and Clemson met in the previous two College Football Playoff national championship games. Venables was limited to a week of preparation. This year, the Alabama exam comes one step earlier in the curriculum — in the Sugar Bowl.
When the Playoff teams were revealed on Dec. 3, Venables opened a 29-day study period. He can scrutinize the schemes Alabama’s first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has implemented. He can analyze the matured leadership and poise of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. He can examine the explosive receivers and running backs.
Considering Alabama’s collection of exceptional talent, Venables will need the extra time to develop a sufficient game plan. However, the more he reviews that talent on tape, the more he wishes he could cram for this test.
“You have to think about ‘having to’ play them a little bit longer, rather than ‘getting to’ play them,” Venables said with a grin. “I’d rather have like two days, and they have the same two days, and you don't have to think about it as much.”
To less seasoned coordinators, the elongated practice session could impede preparation. They can overthink their game plan, overstuff their practices and overload their players. Balance is critical to managing the additional days. Thus, Venables will not spend any of the additional time reinventing Clemson’s strategies or devising gadget blitzes.
“You’re not going to out-trick these guys,” Venables said. “You’ve got to play physical. You’ve got to play with great fundamentals. You’ve got to play with incredible effort and passion. But the physical and mental toughness they make you play with in all three phases of the game is why you play the game.”
According to Venables, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney structures the postseason schedule to facilitate efficient but effective preparation. The Tigers balance their homework with the proper amount of recess.
“We’re not spending 80 percent of our practice or even 70 percent of our practice preparing for Alabama,” Venables said. “We work on fundamentals, good-on-good, just trying to get better, staying in good shape, staying sharp with our foundation.
“You’ve still got to practice with great intensity and physical toughness. (Swinney) does a tremendous job of having that balance, and I think our track record in the postseason is a reflection of that.”
Venables’ impressive transcript has distinguished him as the valedictorian of defensive coordinators. With another intense, but balanced study session, he will be prepared to ace another test, and help Clemson graduate to the next phase.
Manie Robinson, The Greenville News